In 1970, Boulder, Colorado, was the only town above 5,000 feet in the United States that had a permanent indoor track. That alone was reason enough for Frank Shorter to pack his bags. “I could do interval training all year round,” says Shorter, who had just graduated from Yale and was training for the 1972 Olympic marathon. “That’s why I moved there. I didn’t know it had 300 days a year of sunshine and was the best place in the world to live.”
At that time, the running community was just beginning to understand the benefits of training at altitude. And at 5,400 feet above sea level, Boulder seemed optimal. “I was the first athlete to intentionally move here to train," says Shorter, who coached himself and went on to win gold in Munich. “I had a pretty good idea of how to go down to sea level from altitude and race—what the adjustment periods were.”
Since then, the Boulder running scene has boomed. “I would go to the indoor track in 1970, and there would be the University of Colorado track and cross-country team in there, and then about four other people—that was it,” Shorter says. “But, over time, more and more people began to realize it worked.”
When Shorter started several retail businesses in town, he made a practice of hiring recent college graduates who were also runners (among them Stan Mavis and Herb Lindsay). “It was a whole community of people who came out to run,” he says. “We created an environment here that was very inclusive.”
And that inclusivity extends beyond running. After all, what is Boulder without triathletes? Well, Shorter can be thanked for bringing them to town, too. He attended his first Ironman World Championship in 1982. “And guess who told the triathletes about Boulder?" he asks. “Me. Other people found that, for them, Boulder was just right, too. Sort of a Goldilocks thing.”
Local race director Cliff Bosley agrees. "Frank picking Boulder at the time he did popularized altitude running; it really created an influx of runners—and all endurance athletes—who came, and still come, to Boulder."
Shorter maintains that it's not only the athletes, but people of all stripes who thrive in Boulder. “People think the granola-crunchers control what’s going on, but that isn’t the case,” he says. “It’s a city where no one subculture dominates. And by subculture, I mean the university, the business community, and the sports scene.” If you want to excel in your field, Shorter argues, you’ll find support in Boulder.
And he would know. In the late ’70s, Shorter suggested to Steve Bosley, president of the Bank of Boulder (and Cliff's father), that a 10K road race might do well in their town. On May 27, 1979, 2,700 runners, including Shorter, completed the inaugural Bolder Boulder, making it one of the largest first-time races in the state.
"When the race was started, a lot of the early credibility happened as a result of the fact that guys like Ric Rojas and Frank Shorter agreed to run," says race director Bosley. "And so right from the beginning, having world-class athletes was, and continues to be, a part of the Bolder Boulder."
In 1981, the University of Colorado agreed to have the race finish at its Folsom Field Stadium; by 1983, the field had grown large enough to warrant a wave start. In 2011, a record 54,554 runners registered, making it the third-largest 10K in the country.
Shorter thinks many participants use the race as an excuse for a reunion of sorts. “They come because they have relatives here, or they went to school here, or they have friends here; it’s truly something that people plan for the whole year,” he says. “The experience is being here and doing it with people you know, even for the people who come from out of state.”
This year’s Bolder Boulder takes place on Monday, May 26. Shorter will be the official starter, which requires a different type of endurance than running. He'll have to fire the starting gun 94 times—once for each wave. Thankfully, he's been training at altitude.
Need to Know About Boulder:
43 miles from the Denver airport.
Boulder has made several of Outside’s Best Towns lists, most recently in 2012 and 2011.
A growing number of trail runners are finding a new way to test themselves, and it doesn’t involve race fees, bibs, or finish line chutes.
Instead, they’re enlisting their own stopwatch, navigational prowess, and determination to set trail Fastest Known Times, or FKTs. They pick a route, decide whether they’ll receive any outside help in the form of food or aid along the way, and try to cover the distance as fast as possible.
“FKTs allow for a lot more individual creativity than official races,” said ultrarunner Anton Krupicka.
In recent years, the FKT phenomenon has become increasingly visible. A web site—Fastest Known Time—now exists dedicated to record keeping, enabling runners to look up existing records and post their own. The site has several hundred threads dedicated to FKT attempts.
“I think there has been an increased interest in FKTs,” said Peter Bakwin, who runs the Fastest Known Time site. “There are a lot of really cool areas that will never have races on them. Wherever you live, you can find a route.”
Some of the recent attention to FKTs emerged because elite trail runners have tackled major efforts. Whereas elites used to prioritize races over FKTs, Bakwin said, some are now making speed attempts the centerpiece of their season, due to both personal preference and growing support from the companies that back them.
Sponsors, in turn, have followed suit in embracing FKT efforts. The North Face sponsored Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe when they set a speed record on the John Muir Trail last year. Rob Krar, who set the record last year on the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim route, believes his effort on the iconic route—along with a couple of top race performances—helped land him a sponsorship with The North Face.
Public awareness of trail speed attempts has increased as sponsors produce videos and blogs highlighting FKT records. Jornet’s sponsor, Salomon, helps create online videos about his efforts, leading to global recognition of Jornet’s pursuits. New Balance sent a film crew to Colorado last summer to track Anton Krupicka’s attempt to set a speed record on a route up and over a series of 14,000-foot peaks. And Patagonia made web video of the record-setting-run Krissy Moehl and Luke Nelson set on the Trans-Zion trail. Moehl, who also set the women’s speed record on Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail last year with Darcy Africa, said Patagonia prefers that she attempt FKTs and trail adventures rather than just stick to traditional races.
“Patagonia likes the storyline that goes along with it,” Moehl said.
Both elite and amateur runners who attempt FKTs say they’re drawn to the grassroots element of the endeavor. Rather than traipsing through the woods with hundreds of other race competitors, they’re on their own in nature. For trail running enthusiasts, that’s often what drew them to the sport in the first place.
“For me, it’s returning to the roots of why I love mountain running,” Wolfe said. “The joy and freedom of moving through the mountains in a minimalist style.”
FKTs also enable runners to tackle routes in which races will never take place. Permits will likely never be issued for races in wilderness areas or National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim trail, or Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail.
With speed efforts, runners can pick their run day based on personal health, fitness, weather, or convenience, and not have to worry about a designated race day. FKTs also provide a compelling challenge for athletes who want their adventure to include navigation and strategic planning.
“Races are an adventure, but one where you can blow up and get a car ride back home,” said Matt Hart, who set the Zion Traverse record in 2010 and tries to go after a new FKT each year. “There is more adventure, more risk in trying for a FKT. You have to estimate your abilities and go for it.”
But even the most ardent supporters of FKTs acknowledge that there can be downsides. Some runners simply prefer the support and comfort of directional race flagging and aid stations, and don’t want to navigate a wilderness area on their own. Krar said that some athletes might end up in trouble because they chose a route above their ability level.
Criticism also can arise if too many runners are attempting to cover a trail as fast as possible on their own terms. Bakwin and Krar noted problems with large volumes of runners in the Grand Canyon trails in recent years. The runners can overwhelm toilet facilities at the bottom of the canyon and sometimes blow past mule trains and walkers. Of course, very few of these runners are actually attempting FKTs, but observers can easily lump solo or two-person competitive runners into the category as huge groups of runners.
“I’ve heard a lot of reports of runners not obeying common courtesy because they’re on the clock,” Bakwin said.
For these runners, time—and making records of it—means everything. The history of FKTs likely dates way back, but long-term record keeping is tough to uncover. That’s why Bakwin started the Fastest Known Time web site roughly 10 years ago. He and friend Buzz Burrell made sure to dub the records on the site Fastest Known Times, as there can always be existing speed records that no one knows about. The site encourages runners to use GPS, photos, and other methods to verify their times.
“If you want to go out there with no GPS track and no witnesses, that’s great, but then don’t publicize it and ask sponsors for support,” Burrell said. “If you’re going to publicize yourself, then document yourself. It’s a package deal.”
In addition to keeping records, Bakwin wants the site to tell stories of both trail triumphs and failures. He’s more interested in someone’s trail experience than the end time result.
“I wanted to have a place those stories could be saved,” Bakwin said.